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16 December — APS mayhem recalled

MZafar Khan Safdar

It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds’. I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens but it is never gone. There are wounds that never show on the body and are deeper, more hurtful than anything that bleeds. Similar is the deep wound of Army Public School (APS) carnage. On Friday the second year of APS tragedy was completed but it still seems like yesterday and the nation has not forgotten the mayhem and violence that played havoc on that day in 2014. The December 16 attack on the APS in Peshawar was the worst terrorist act in Pakistan’s history that claimed the lives of 150 people, including 134 children, and a nearly equal number injured. After a squad of many armed men launched a suicide attack during class hours with indiscriminate firing on school children as they raided classroom after classroom, eight hours elapsed before military forces regained control of the school. Terrorism has claimed thousands of innocent lives in Pakistan over the last several years, but the APS children’s massacre is the bloodiest in the nation’s recent history. I happened to attend few funerals of relative kids who died in APS. The winter gloom of Peshawar was awfully exacerbated; city and surroundings were in utter grief that was beyond narration. Responsibility for the massacre was claimed by the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had declared to have undertaken it as revenge for the ongoing military operation Zarb-e-Azb in tribal areas since June 2014. The formation of the TTP dates back to the 2002 that absorbed many Al-Qaeda fighters who fled from Afghanistan to the bordering tribal areas of Pakistan following the US attack in Oct 2001. In the year 2007, it was formally created as an umbrella organisation, led by Baitullah Mehsud, incorporating 13 militant groups. Mehsud’s successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, declared a war against the state of Pakistan in October 2013, seeking to replace Pakistan’s ‘un-Islamic system’ by an Islamic one. Hakimullah Mehsud was killed the following month in a US drone strike. Major differences in the historical background, interests and goals of the TTP and the Afghan Taliban mean there is no direct affiliation between the two. The operation Zarb-e-Azb, after much ado, was finally launched on June 15, 2014, after it became clear to the government that peace talks with the TTP were nowhere close to fruition, and that, despite talks, the it had been conducting attacks. The army was also getting edgy as more and more military installations were being targeted by the TTP. In one particular strike, Lt Gen Sanaullah Niazi, a three-star general involved in previous military operations against the TTP, was assassinated by the group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa near the Afghan border. Another key event that triggered the military was the TTP’s beheading of 23 captured soldiers from the Frontier Corps in February 2014. The organisation further provoked the military by using Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) members to conduct an attack at the Jinnah International Terminal of Karachi Airport, which resulted in the killing of 28 airport security personnel. The government’s policy to root out terrorists has been two pronged and polarised: the government has sought to either negotiate with the TTP in the hope of salvaging peace through a deal, or when such peace deals have failed, the army has launched military operations to exterminate the Taliban, as was the case with the Swat operation in 2009 when the Malakand Accord broke down. The Malakand Accord, which was struck between the government of Pakistan and the TTP in February 2009, and involved making concessions to the militants including the imposition of a radical form of Shari’a in the Malakand Division, has already exposed the dangers of brokering a peace deal with the Taliban. Following the government’s decision to take the offensive, the military launched airstrikes, and 30,000 troops marched into North Waziristan, where operation Zarb-e-Azb has since continued up to the present day with 90% of the area being declared as cleared by the armed forces. The dangers inherent in a military operation against the TTP have also manifested themselves through the ugly horror of suicide attacks and blasts that have plagued the country.
Pakistan saw a 48% rise in deaths in terrorists attacks in 2009-2012 following the launch of the army offensive in Swat and Waziristan provoking a backlash from the Taliban, with terror attacks having claimed 70,000 lives in the past 13 years. The NAP contains 20 points to eradicate the mindset of terrorism to defeat extremism and sectarianism. Unsurprisingly, there is little evidence of progress on many NAP targets. Groups and individuals banned in Pakistan and also blacklisted under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1267, continue to operate freely. A gruesome example is the recent electoral victory of candidate of banned Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan on PP-78 of Punjab Assembly.

Efforts to regulate the Madaris, curb hate speech and literature and block terrorist financing have been haphazard at best. The government still has an opportunity, albeit fast shrinking, to reverse course and meaningfully overhaul counter-terrorism strategy, but this necessitates revoking major policy concessions to the military. The government should take on that challenge in order to replace an overly militarised response with a revamped, intelligence-guided counter-terrorism strategy, led by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police. While the three basic bodies of law, the Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act, need to be modernised, it is even more urgent to build police capacity to enforce them. That capacity has been gravely eroded due to the inadequacy of resources, training, internal accountability and autonomy. The current emphasis on revenge and retribution along with the emasculation of fundamental rights and rule of law are undermining citizen confidence in the state to deliver justice. The ongoing operation Zarb-e-Azb has completed its two and half year period. This military operation is the first of its kind against terrorists based in the North Waziristan. However, there have been previous operations elsewhere in FATA since Pakistan’s first operation against al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other foreign Islamist militant groups in the area in 2002. The current operation is intended to target al-Qaeda and its associated movements, both foreign and domestic, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Chechen Islamic Jihad Union and Emirate-e-Kaukav, as well as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and other various factions of the TTP. Phenomenal successes have been achieved from the operation Zarb-e-Azb, which include last pockets close to Pak-Afghan border cleared, terrorists’ backbone broken, main infrastructure dismantled and nexus with sleeper cells largely disrupted. According to ISPR, a total of 3,400 terrorists including 183 hardcore killed, 837 hideouts destroyed, and 21,193 have been arrested. Some 500 officers and men of Pak Army, FC and Rangers sacrificed their lives and 1914 were injured in the operation. Despite all its successes, one additional risk arising from operation Zarb-e-Azb is that adjacent Afghan provinces could now become a ‘new North Waziristan’ as Islamist militants pushed out by Zarb-e-Azb have taken refuge there, underlining the problems caused by our failure to get the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani on board before launching the operation.

This lack of Pak-Afghan cooperation, and the resulting militant safe havens into Afghanistan, is likely to be one reason why no major terrorist leader, such as Fazlullah, Adnan Rashid, Omar Khalid Khorasani and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, has so far been killed or captured during the operation. Moreover, the presence of right wingers and self-appointed warders of religion who have emptied the Divine from divinity and stand antithetical to everything that God stands for are still the biggest threat. The ruthlessness of these ‘brainless saviours of Islam’ has led Pakistan into its nuclear winter. An upheaval of great proportions may be required to counter this growing threat to the country’s survival.

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